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Behavior modification is a technique of altering an individual's behaviors and reactions to stimuli through positive and negative reinforcement of adaptive behavior and/or the extinction of maladaptive behavior through positive and negative punishment.


While founded in behaviorism, behavior modification has long been used by psychotherapists, parents, and caretakers of those with special needs who don't necessarily have a behaviorist "philosophy." It involves some of the most basic methods to alter human behavior, through operant reward and punishment. Classical conditioning, which aims to affect changes in behavior through associations between stimuli and responses, can also be a component of behavior modification, but it is generally less useful in applied settings because it focuses solely on basic involuntary reactions to stimuli and not on conscious learning associated with a behavior's function or context.

Strictly following behavioral principles, there is no analysis of the individual's thoughts, but many argue that the therapy can be improved with cognitive components. In recent years, the concept of punishment has had many critics, but it has legitimately effective uses in contexts such as behavioral extinction, made especially popular in the childhood discipline technique of "time out." When mis-used, punishment can lead to affective (emotional) disorders, as well as to the target of the punishment eventually focusing only on avoiding punishment (i.e., "not getting caught") rather than improving behavior.


A thorough behavioural assessment is required as therapy cannot be effective unless the behaviors to be changed are understood within a specific context. Therefore, a functional assessment may be undertaken. One of the most simple yet effective methods of functional assessment is called the "ABC" approach, where observations are made on Antecedents, Behaviors, and Consequences. In other words, "What comes directly before the behavior?", "What does the behavior look like?", and "What comes directly after the behavior?" Once enough observations are made, the data are analyzed and patterns are identified. If there are consistent antecedents and/or consequences, then an intervention should target them in order to increase or decrease the target behavior. Alternatively applied behavior analysis may be employed.


The techniques employed include:

A simple way of giving positive reinforcement in behavior modification is in providing compliments, approval, encouragement, and affirmation; a ratio of five compliments for every one complaint is generally seen as being the most effective in altering behavior in a desired manner.[1][2]

Areas of application[]

Behavior Modification in Prisons[]

Behavior modification procedures from the Applied Behavior Analysis tradition have created very effective programs for prisons. Early studies with adults showed lessening of recividism and increased academic performance [3][4][5][6][7]. Recent meta-analytic studies have confirmed that behavioral interventions reduce prison misconduct [8] and recividism [9]. In both meta-analytic studies, the effect size was 2.5 times greater for the behavioral program compared to the non-behavioral programs. In addition, the French study concluded that the behavioral program worked better for 77% of the offenders involved in the program compared to the non-behavioral program. Even with these numbers many are concerned because of past abuses of behavior modification in the penal system. This has led to the call for moving past certifying behavior analysts BACB licensing of behavior analysts in prisons (see professional practice of behavior analysis)


Behavior modification is critiqued in person-centered psychotherapeutic approaches such as Rogerian Counseling and Re-evaluation Counseling[1]. The argument is that these methods involve connecting with the human qualities of the person to promote healing and that behaviorism is denigrating to the human spirit.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Further criticism extends to the presumption that behavior increases only when it is reinforced. This premise is at odds with research conducted by Albert Bandura at Stanford University. His findings indicated that violent behavior is imitated, without being reinforced, in studies conducted with children watching films showing various individuals 'beating the daylights out of Bobo'. Bandura believed that human personality and learning is the result of the interaction between environment, behavior and psychological process. (

While Behaviorism continues to grow as a science by including environmental factors, for example, it could be criticized for being reductionist.

See also[]


  1. Kirkhart, Robert and Evelyn, "The Bruised Self: Mending in the Early Years", in Kaoru Yamamoto (ed.), The Child and His Image: Self Concept in the Early Years. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1972.
  2. Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (1999). "What predicts change in marital interaction over time? A study of alternative models." Family Process, 38 (2), 143-158.
  3. Bishop, C.H. & Blanchard E.B. (1971) Behavior Modification and Corrections. Athens, Ga: Institute of Government University of Georgia.
  4. Schnelle, J.F. & Lee, J. F. (1974). A quasi-experimental retrospective evaluation of prison policy change. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 7, 483-496.
  5. Boren, J.J. & Coleman, A.D. (1970). Some experiments on reinforcement principles within a psychiatric ward for delinquent soldiers. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 3, 29-37
  6. Clements, C.B. & McKee, J.M.(1968). Programmed instruction for institutionalized offenders: Contingency management and performance contracts. Psychological Reports, 22, 957-964
  7. Lawson, R.B. Greene, R.T., Richardson, J.S. McClure, G. & Padina, R.J.(1971). Token economy programs in a maximum security correctional hospital. Journal of Nerv. Ment. Dis., 152, 199-205
  8. French, S.A. & Gendreau, P. (2006). Reducing Prison Misconducts: What Works!Criminal Justice and Behavior, Vol. 33 (2), 185-218
  9. Redondo-Illescas, S., Sanchez-Meca, J., & Garrido-Genovaes, V.(2001). Treatment of offenders and recidivism: Assessment of the effectiveness of programmes applied in Europe. Psychology in Spain, 5(1),47-62.

External links[]

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